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article imageDeadly devastation as Irma rips through Caribbean

By Lionel Chamoiseau and Thomas Thurar (AFP)     Sep 6, 2017 in World

Hurricane Irma on Thursday slashed its way through the Caribbean towards the United States, transforming tropical island paradises into scenes of death and ruin.

Wielding monster winds and pounding rain, the rare Category 5 hurricane was on a potential collision course with southern Florida, where at-risk areas were being evacuated.

"It will be truly devastating," warned the head of the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Brock Long. "The entire southeastern United States better wake up and pay attention."

Irma churned westward through the Caribbean, packing winds of up to 295 kilometers (183 miles) per hour. French weather experts said Irma had raged at peak intensity for more than 33 hours, making it the longest-lasting superstorm since satellite monitoring began in the 1970s.

Devastation was left in the storm's wake. The international Red Cross said 1.2 million people had already been hit by Irma, a number that could rise to 26 million.

- Tossed aside like matchsticks -

On many islands, roofs were ripped off buildings as if by a giant's hand, shipping containers were tossed aside like matchsticks and debris flung far and wide, and airports, sea ports and mobile phone networks were knocked out.

With Irma raging for more than 33 hours  packing winds of up to 295 kph (183 mph)  French weather ex...
With Irma raging for more than 33 hours, packing winds of up to 295 kph (183 mph), French weather experts said it was longest-lasting superstorm on record 

St Martin, a pristine island resort divided between France and the Netherlands, suffered the full fury of the storm.

France, in a toll revised downwards, said four had died and 50 were injured, two of them seriously. Sixty percent of homes were so damaged that they were uninhabitable.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe described the disaster as "unimaginable and unprecedented."

"The work will be long, emotions will run deep and the sadness will be great," he said.

A photo from the Facebook account of Kevin Barralon showing some of the devastation in Gustavia on S...
A photo from the Facebook account of Kevin Barralon showing some of the devastation in Gustavia on St Bart -- one of several Caribbean islands which was devastated when Hurricane Irma bowled through
Kevin Barrallon, FACEBOOK/AFP

The Netherlands said it was racing to provide food and water for 40,000 people over the next five days, while France said more than 100,000 packages of combat rations were en route. A 200-member French team flew in to Guadeloupe to coordinate rescue efforts, headed by Overseas Territories Minister Annick Girardin.

Britain said it was sending two warships to help victims in the Caribbean, and earmarking £12 million ($15.7 million, 13 million euros) in aid. The first vessel was expected to reach affected territories on Thursday.

- 'Everything is destroyed' -

Speaking to Dutch broadcaster RTL, Koen, a 20-year-old who lives in the town of Voorhout of St Martin, said he was shocked by what he saw.

"There is huge damage. Sand has been blown over everything. Everything is destroyed."

This satellite image obtained from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shows ...
This satellite image obtained from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shows Hurricane Irma (L) and Hurricane Jose (R)

Irma also laid waste to Barbuda, part of the twin island nation of Antigua and Barbuda, which suffered "absolute devastation" with up to 30 percent of properties demolished, Prime Minister Gaston Browne said.

"Barbuda now is literally rubble," he said.

"These storms are more ferocious, they are coming in greater frequency -- evidence that climate change is real," Browne added in an interview with CNN.

One person is known to have died on the small island of 1,600 inhabitants, apparently a child whose family was trying to get to safer ground.

On the island of Barbados, a 16-year-old professional surfer named Zander Venezia died while trying to ride a monster wave generated by the storm, the World Surf League said.

Across the Caribbean  thousands of people have been evacuated like Andrea Rivera  seen here at an em...
Across the Caribbean, thousands of people have been evacuated like Andrea Rivera, seen here at an emergency centre in Fajardo, Puerto Rico

More than half of Puerto Rico's population of three million was without power, with rivers breaking their banks in the centre and north of the island where Governor Ricardo Rossello activated the National Guard and opened storm shelters sufficient for up to 62,000 people.

- Fearful course -

Irma was expected to hit the northern edges of the Dominican Republic and Haiti later Thursday, continuing past eastern Cuba before veering north towards Florida.

US President Donald Trump has already declared a state of emergency for Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands and Florida.

With forecasters warning of catastrophe, including sea-level surges of up to 25 feet (almost eight meters) above normal tide levels, people evacuated tourist areas and packed into shelters across an area stretching as far north as Florida.

The Sunshine State is expecting to face the brunt of the storm from Friday night. Tourists in the popular Key West islands were packing their bags on a mandatory evacuation order, with a similar order for residents due to follow.

Hurricane Irma
Hurricane Irma
Laurence CHU, AFP

Irma was hitting the Caribbean even as two other tropical storms, Jose in the Atlantic Ocean and Katia in the Gulf of Mexico, were upgraded to hurricane status.

But the French weather service said Jose, now a Category 2 storm, was likely to bypass land, though it could still dump huge amounts of rain that would complicate rescue and recovery operations.

As for Katia, still a Category 1 storm, it is expected to hit the coast of the Mexican state of Veracruz before Friday.


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